So, admittedly, I’m quite the Kevin Spacey fan to begin with…
…after all, this is the guy who made The Usual Suspects, Se7en, L.A. Confidential and American Beauty in just over four years, with just five weeks between the releases of the first two (now classic thrillers both). He’s also diversified with Glengarry Glen Ross, Swimming with Sharks, A Bug’s Life, 21, Moon and Margin Call demonstrating the supreme talent of a man who has been blessed with a wonderful career in film. In theatre too he’s reigned as Richard III amongst others, and has been artistic director at the Old Vic for ten years. But it’s to television we turn, to look at Spacey’s latest venture House of Cards, and the knock-on effect that the “Netflix model” has caused.
Not only is his latest show a triumph, underscoring many aspects within the playground of American politics, but it provided the basis for his much-mentioned recent speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival. For, in it, he uses his own experiences in producing House of Cards to underline how the approach to television is shifting beneath the feet of those not quick enough to move with the times. He covers many things, not least of which is the changing approach to distribution, the audience being in control of viewing methods, and innovative new approaches from Netflix and others in providing solutions to these questions.
Spacey’s argument is that content should be (and has been) put in the hands of the consumer, lest television fall down to the same traps that caught the music industry and allowed piracy to run riot. New methods of distribution such as Netflix, LoveFilm and Video-on-Demand services – as well as the increased programming on television, on websites, and everywhere else – mean that the audience are fully in charge. They watch what they want when they want to, but they pay for the privilege of doing so. Whether this means binging on a series over the first weekend of its release, or watching it week-on-week when the time suits, it really doesn’t matter.
The likes of Hemlock Grove and Orange is the New Black have benefited from Netflix’s production branch, dedicated to finding the best new shows, whilst even Ricky Gervais’ Derek is finding an international audience because of the service. It also gave us the [somewhat underwhelming] return of Arrested Development, which was a massive moment for fan power and cementing Netflix as a major player. If only they could do the same for Firefly. The recent multi-platform release of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, a Film4 venture (another innovative organisation), shows that the future of film is thinking along similar grounds. After all, the likes of Netflix and LoveFilm have allowed independent film to thrive, and to be picked up and reached by an audience that would have never have otherwise paid for or had access to it.
Not only this, but television is universally agreed to be in a golden age. Massive directors like David Fincher (House of Cards) and Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire) have taken on extended pilots, whilst the likes of Aaron Sorkin writes regularly, and Joss Whedon is heading back to his roots. Then you’ve got the acting talent, ranging from new leading men (Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston) to big-time talent (Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith, The Newsroom’s Jeff Daniels, Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, etc.) and a whole host of newcomers (of which there are many, but the majority of the Game of Thrones cast is a good place to start).
Even in September alone, there are the exciting returns of Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, Parks & Recreation and the shark-jumping Homeland, as well as Stephen Merchant’s new HBO comedy series Hello Ladies, and the ongoing sagas of Breaking Bad and The Newsroom. Interestingly, Bates Motel is another set to arrive, although on British shores only since it’s already aired in America. And clearly this shows that there are still lessons to learn. British viewers have shown that they aren’t prepared to wait a week for the latest episode if they can get it – legally or otherwise – from America (or elsewhere) sooner. And, in our defence, there’s more to this argument than mere impatience and excitability. After all, the digital age – Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in particular – mean that it’s almost impossible to avoid spoilers for that long, or at least it’s a very dangerous, unenviable task
Sky, Channel 4 and, again, Netflix have been attempting to solve this problem, and it’s the latter which has made the biggest strides in doing so, making Breaking Bad – unmissable television – available to all immediately. Kevin Spacey’s speech mentions too that this character-driven era of television has a “passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of”, and in a summer that’s given us World War Z, Man of Steel, Elysium and countless others of generic and forgettable stories, he’s not wrong. If film (and the rest of the arts) wants to keep up with these televisual greats, and if television wants to keep producing fantastic programmes, then they could do far worse than to listen to Kevin Spacey. Because honestly, he knows what he’s talking about.